9 Things You Think You Know about Jesus: A Thinking Man’s Review

I saw it come through my media feeder and honestly took a peek before treating it the same way I do with attempts by Fox News and David Barton to do history. I mumbled for took a sip of coffee, sighed, and closed the browser. Yet as I have heard a couple of people asking questions I thought I might grace them with a response here.

For the record I am talk about the Salon post 9 Things You Think You Know about Jesus that Are Probably Wrong. First off, I would hope we could agree that the world is usually a better place when we avoid such click bait posts. Yet, I, like everyone else, cannot always help myself. Sometimes I might actually learn something; must of the time, I mutter to myself and close the tab.

I would say that several of the “things we are unaware of” are not so new to those of us who have read some N.T. Wright and had a hankering for truly understanding the world of Christ.  Yes, Jesus was probably short, and not terribly attractive. Scripture hints at this. Yes, Jesus was a First Century Jew so He probably didn’t look like the Scandinavian God of the famous 20th century painting or the American hippie of the Jesus movies. Chances are, he was even much darker in complexion than many of us in the Western Church. Chances are his skin pigmentation was closer to our African-American brothers and sisters than to those of us who are WASPs. I don’t really think this matters a whole lot. He could have been purple; and this would not change the meaning of His words to us. I do think it matters when someone stupidly tries to make him into a rich, white, conservative Protestant (Fox, I’m looking at you). But we should also not stoop to playing the pigmentation game. However he looked is of lesser importance  of than what he said and did.

For the record I would say the same thing about the transliteration of his name. Language is tricky; it’s how Richman becomes Rickman or Salvatore becomes Sal. It’s also how Joshua or Jeshua becomes Jesus. Once again, I would ask anyone reading to simply repeat with me that translation is a tricky wicket.

Ditto the hair thing. Long hair. No hair. Does not matter. I would think that we would like to truly understand the world as it was. And in a sense we might seek to apply good judgment in how we talk about who He was.

When one of the authors of the early 20th Century classic The Fundalmentals R.A. Torrey was asked about the ways in which Pentecostals talked about the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, Torrey conceeded that perhaps the language was not a perfect match for Scripture; but they were talking about a very important. I would rather people have the right experience by the wrong name; than the wrong experience by the right name, Torrey responded.  I think Torrey’s coda applies here. I don’t care as much how people picture Jesus. In a sense Jesus belongs to all of us. So when American kids picture him as an American or Asian kids picture him as an Asian; my concern is less for historical accuracy than it is that they know Him, experience Him as like them in every way, and are drawn to the Church as the place to met Him in a real way. I would rather people have the wrong picture of Jesus and the right experience with Him; than a right picture of Him and a wrong experience.

Se la vie.

Of lesser concern than other points but showing a troubling trend is the discussion of  whether He was born in a stable or  what actually the cross looked like. There has been much debate about this by scholars. Once again I feel we must allow that in some ways this from the 1st Century there can be some problems with understanding all the nuances of the verses. That is why I am thankful for friends like Jimmy, or Dave, or any of the others I met in my life who are living within the academy and pursuing better understandings of the technical nuance of scripture. It is important; yet, as a person boots on the ground in a Parish, many of these are just not as important or earth-shattering. I would rather someone wear the wrong shaped cross around their neck as they feed the poor; than the right kind as they sit in their comfortable pews and pat each other on the back for being cool.

Yet in the language surrounding these points, I hear some troubling points bubbling- and it was seeing these key phrases pop up that I knew which direction of the field the writer matriculated and said, “Meh.”

For instance Valerie Tarico writes:

“Early Christians may have centered on the vertical pole with a crossbeam because it echoed the Egyptian ankh, a symbol of life, or the Sumerian symbol for Tammuz, or because it simply was more artistically and symbolically distinctive than the alternatives. Imagine millions of people wearing a golden pole on a chain around their necks.”

This is a popular sport for modern academics: find a similarity between Christianity and another religion and say that the Christians were copying or incorporating that religion. Tarisco does this with the cross and the apostles- seeing in them some attribution that was not so much from Judaism as from some esoteric belief system in the area. Let me ask you. Is it more likely Jesus took 12 disciples to specially train as a nod to the history of his people and a way to show how he was the crowning moment of his culture or that he pulled some piece of thought randomly from the religion of a group of people he may or may not have encountered? I would ask reason to be used here.

Yet, this works as a way of diminishing the Bible for a couple of reasons. For one, the Roman Catholic Church was actually quite good at taking pieces of native religions and Christianizing them. Hence we call the celebration of Christ’s resurrection Easter (a derivation of the Celtic goddess Eostre who was the goddess mentioned by the historian Bede). Some go as far as to link Christmas to pagan Roman celebrations to Bacchus; and of course there is the All Saints vs Halloween conundrum.

Second, it works because modern people assume the 1st century is like the 21st. Yet trying to solve tricky knots like who came first Moses or Hammurabi is tougher from a historian’s point of view than is often admitted. Ancient society did not have the internet (I know!). Nor did they have planes, trains, or automobiles (I know!). People did move about; but it was not the way it is now. Knowing who informed whom is tougher than most internet baiters can even begin to understand. Additionally I would consider it a fallacy to assume that because two societies had similar institutions or symbols that they based on or modeled or shaped by one another. It is quite possible that their similarity was simply a coincidence. Of course, it’s entirely possible that they are not. Yet when I hear people on the political and theological spectrum from Glenn Beck to Elaine Pagels use this tortured logic it makes me disparate their upbringing under my breathe. I’m just sayin’.

Of course alarm bells were ringing for me in the introduction where Tariso wrote:

“We have no record of anything that was written about Jesus by eyewitnesses or other contemporaries during the time he would have lived, or for decades thereafter. Nonetheless, based on archeological digs and artifacts, ancient texts and art, and even forensic science, we know a good deal about the time and culture in which the New Testament is set.”

Umm. Hello. We have no witnesses. For those of us who consider ourselves Orthodox in the faith, that one is biggest tell of the article.  For the past 200 years critics have been bringing out this narrative that what we Christians are not what we say there. There is no proof for their assertions, mind you. But assert they must. In fact the archeological evidence that Tarisco is so fond of actually points In many places away from her premise. We may not have a full New Testament before the 3rd or 4th century; but if she were to to look at the findings she is mentioning, she will find right there in Qumran scraps and pieces of writings that provide good grounds for those of us who say that the Gospels are what they purport to be: eyewitness accounts of the ministry of Jesus. Additionally we begin to see discussion of these works in the writing of such Church Fathers as Irenaeus (d. 202) or even heterodox writers such as Marcion (d. 160) or Roman writers like Celsus or Valentian.

And of course if I make this argument; then I am hit with the narrative Tarisco peddles later on in her article that the early church fiddled with the story and changed things to their liking. Once again we have no evidence for this fiddling. But assert they must. Because the Gospels can’t be true, can they? Such silliness, God becoming man, virgins giving birth, it has to be fiddling. This a great hobby horse. It seems to me that those who use this theory only point to it; when they are wanting to strike down a phrase or passage. The passages they like are never questioned. Never.

In fact as Josh McDowell taught a generation of us- the Bible actually has the best attribution and source material of any writing in antiquity or even that of, say, Shakespeare. Yes, the Bible was transcribed by hand for centuries; and yes, some typographical errors occurred- even to the point of garbling good chunks of the King James Bible, thanks Obama, I mean Jerome and your Vulgate!

But to make this point misses another large one. The reverence with which the scribes treated the documents and their works. They poured themselves into the work and it was done in excruciating and painstaking detail. Just one slip of the quill after a long day, and the whole manuscript would be burned and tossed away. When one believes themselves to be literally rewriting the words of God, one is inclined to care.

Yet modern scholarship and archaeology has unearthed countless manuscripts over the past 200 years. And scholars have been comparing these to those found in 1947 at Qumran. At this point, we arguably have the cleanest copies of the texts that have existed since the 2nd century.

The only problem who make this argument are those who are more comfortable with the so-called Gospels that tell of a more earthy Jesus. Yet while the attribution and potency of these works are questionable at best (see Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? by N.T. Wright), so-called scholars like Pagels have kept coming back to them because like Thomas Jefferson, they are uncomfortable with the divine and supernatural and really want to find a way to have their Christianity, their way.

You will notice that Tarisco quotes the Gospel of Phillip alongside the rest of scripture like it is an equal source, it is not. Never has been. Never will be. Sorry.

While we are here, let’s talk about the elephant in the room, Mary Magdalene who has more words about here in Phillip. Tarisco is right, a celibate Rabbi would be a sight, an oddity; but much of what attracted the crowds to Jesus was the way in which he was abnormally normal. Much of what he said and did was grounded in the life of Jewish thought and practice; yet he often flipped that life on its head and came at things from a different place and perspective. So one simply can’t say that Jesus had to do something because…

That being said. I really don’t care if Jesus had a wife or not. Hebrews tells us that Jesus was like us in every way and was tempted in every way we are; so if Jesus was tempted to be a smug jerk or mansplain something to his wife, let it be. I am not so hung up on the dirtiness of sex to think that engaging in the act somehow made him less clean. I would say it would have made him more; not less. Yet, the Scriptures do not mention this fact; and so I do not really consider it. If the writers needed me to know, understand, and teach that Jesus was married; they would have put this into their account- they didn’t so if even if he was, they did not consider it important, so I don’t.

This brings me in a roundabout way to the last two things I evidently do not know: i.e. the place of the Jewish Pentateuch, Wisdom Writings, and Prophetic Works in Jesus’ life and ministry.  The allegations here hit at the heart of Christianity. Just who was He and what was He up to doing. Here I would recommend the purchase and careful reading of N.T. Wright’s Christian Origins series. Along with a careful reading of modern scholars such as Scott McKnight, Doug Moo, and D.A. Carson who have fretted over the details in much higher ways than I ever could.

The way that Jesus is painted in this section is as a master of aesthetics and media manipulation who was trying his hardest to paint himself as a Messiah figure according to the genre of Jewish writings. During the 100 years before and after Christ, there were hundreds of these figures, who tried doing the same thing. We remember only a few of them; and none of them have achieved the recognition and made the continuing impact of Jesus. But Jesus died, that is powerful story. Yes, but everyone of the others did as well. For each of them regardless of how good they were at tablesetting and getting their narrative in place, each of their deaths meant the end of them being taken seriously by the Jewish community.

(This, of course, says nothing about the fact that Jesus met several ‘prophecies ‘ that he could never have controlled: place and manner of birth, etc.)

In this mix, though, Jesus stands apart. Why? I would argue that, yes, some of this may be attributed to good storytellers like Matthew who had a point of view and hammered it home. Yet, why would Matthew not just walk away (or limp into the cold night of Jesus’ arrest)? Why continue the charade? I would argue that they did so; because Jesus was different and something really did happen on that strange weekend that stands at the center of our history.

At the conclusion of her article our author gets to her point and purpose. She wrote:

“The person of Jesus, if indeed there was such a  person, is shrouded in the fog of history leaving us only with a set of hunches and traditions that far too often are treated as knowledge. The “facts” I have listed here are largely trivial; it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus was tall or short, or how he cut his hair. But it does matter, tremendously, that ‘facts’ people claim to know about how Jesus saw himself, and God and humanity are equally tenuous.”

The writer admits that the at best she has picked 8 ‘facts’ that are not so important as to be untrue (she goes for a 9th that hits more close to home). Yet if the story of Christ really is as tenuous as she claims it to be, why not post a stronger argument. If the house of cards is so wobbly, why jenga the top cards only? Why not highlight for us the floppy cards at the bottom of the house that would knock it all down?

If we are in fact naked? Why quibble at the color of our skin? Why not point out that the Emperor has no clothes?

Tarisco is correct about something. We ought to have our facts straight; but not all facts are equal. Some are of more importance than others.  If we are such a weak thing, why mess our hair? Why not knock us down?

One might argue that all Taisco has is a bit of the hair rustle and the top cards of the house. The rest is better constructed and built than she would care for it to be (or is simply so unversed in Christian thought that she has used only the couple of pieces she has).


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